On Valentine’s Day while others were buying chocolates for that special someone, I was brooding about the new Alberta Health Act. I can’t shake the feeling that the underlying purpose of this legislation is to slide Albertans down the path to greater privatization. Is this a good strategy or a bad one? No one knows because we don’t have enough information to make an informed choice. Nevertheless, our government is forging ahead without our input, let alone our support.
But maybe I’m being paranoid. Let’s start with the facts. The Premier was asked whether his government was moving toward greater privatization. He said: “No, now go away.” Well, he didn’t say it quite that way, what he said was: “I don’t know how many times I have to repeat in the House that this government is firmly committed to a publicly funded, publically administered health care system. Period.” * (I extrapolated the rest from the word “Period”).
Notwithstanding the Premier’s response, speculation and paranoia continue to rise. Why? Because the government’s actions do not align with the Premier’s statement. In fact if you examine what the Premier said you’ll notice that he ducked the question. He didn’t deny that the government was moving toward more private insurance and private healthcare, he simply confirmed his support for public healthcare. Public and private healthcare systems can co-exist; the concern is that public healthcare will suffer if there aren’t sufficient resources to support both the public and private systems. In the world of PR and politics if you don’t like the question you’re asked then you answer the question you wish you’d been asked. In my world the Premier’s answer gives the PC’s plenty of wiggle room.
Remember, these questions didn’t spring out of thin air. They were triggered by the leaked government policy paper called Alberta’s Health Legislation: Moving Forward. The policy paper sets out a two phase process to change Alberta’s Health Act. Phase 1 consists of building public confidence—a recent Environics poll showed that 63% of Albertans feel the healthcare system is in crisis so the PC’s a long way to go on that front. Phase 2 sets up a process to erode existing provincial laws** which protect medicare by changing them into regulations that the Health Minister can unilaterally amend in the backroom without the public scrutiny of a legislative debate.
Phase 2 will allow the Health Minister to delist services so that they are available for private health insurance. It will permit doctors to work inside and outside the public system (unlike the existing system where doctors must choose to opt-in or opt-out). In order to stem the tide of doctors flocking to the private sector for the bulk of their practice, the Minister can mandate doctors to devote a portion of their time to the public system. (The fact that the government is prepared to order doctors by law to work in the public system is an indication of how undesirable the public system will become).
Dr Raj Sherman confirmed that this policy was approved by the Health Minister in July 2010 and presented to all government MLAs.
So who do we believe—the government or ousted MLAs and other professionals who’ve analysed the leaked policy paper? I’ve found that the best way to resolve a dispute where each party says the other one has got it wrong is to get more evidence. So on Valentine’s Day I sent the Department of Health and Wellness a FOIP request.
The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act gives us the right to examine the records of any public body. The FOIP website is clear and easy to follow. I completed a Request to Access Information, wrote a cheque for $25 and sent my request to Ms Barbara Joyner, as directed. I asked for “any and all records and documents including but not limited to correspondence (email or hard copy), presentations, briefs, reports and studies pertaining to the private insurance options which are the subject of a Government of Alberta presentation entitled Alberta Health Legislation: Moving Forward”. I even attached the page of the powerpoint presentation which referred to private insurance options. I’ve had no response thus far—but it’s only been a week and a half the PC cabinet have resigned their posts so the department may be a little distracted.
The paranoid side of me wonders whether this exercise will be a repeat of the Liberal’s experience in the fall of 2005. The Liberals made a FOIP request with respect to Klein’s Third Way. The government informed them that there were 6,331 pages responsive to the request and it would cost $8,400 to produce them. Nine months later the Liberals received 168 pages and had managed to negotiate the cost down to $1,081. The 168 pages were practically useless and arrived long after the spring 2006 Legislative Session was over.
FOIP is a critical democratic tool. It can provide access to valuable information that will contribute to the debate…but only if the government makes it accessible. In his 2010 annual report, Frank Work, the Privacy Commissioner said: “If you’re going to promise transparency then deliver it…Let the public see, let the public judge, let the public find ways to make the information useful and relevant to themselves and others.
I hope that my request will skip across the placid pool that is the Department of Health and Wellness and land safely on the other side, however the sceptic in me thinks it will bounce twice and make a soft “foip” sound before it sinks like a stone to the murky bottom. I’ll keep you posted.
*Hansard, Nov 29, p 1637
**These protections are enshrined in the Health Care Protection Act, the Health Care Insurance Act, the Hospitals Act and the Nursing Homes Act. The Canada Health Act alone will not protect universal care and equal access to all services.